On Monday, our nation will pause in observance of Memorial Day to honor the servicemembers we have lost in the line of duty. This day is a stark reminder of the cost of our freedoms, and a time to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country as well as the families they leave behind. Due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, this Memorial Day will look different than in previous years. Although we may not be able to gather together like we typically would with our neighbors, communities and churches to commemorate our nation’s heroes, I encourage you to find a way to honor the sacrifice they have made.

As a veteran and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, supporting our veterans and servicemembers remains my most solemn duty, especially during the coronavirus crisis. I am committed to ensuring VA has the resources they need to provide the highest quality of care possible. That is why I proudly supported the CARES Act, which among its critical provisions provided $19.6 billion in emergency funding for VA, with direct assistance to VA medical facilities, support for homeless veterans’ programs, relief to state-run nursing homes, funding for personal protective equipment, expansion of VA telehealth and telework capabilities, and more.

I have also been working closely with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and the entire VA team to ensure that they are able to respond effectively to this public health crisis. I know that keeping veterans and employees safe and healthy remains VA’s top priority. I applaud them for taking the right steps in the early days of this crisis to keep our nation’s veterans safe by shutting down visitation in nursing homes and spinal cord injury units and transitioning non-urgent care to telehealth – ultimately saving lives. Thankfully, the VA health care workforce has had fewer coronavirus infections than other health care systems. I believe that is a testament to the department’s preparedness and commitment to keeping front line workers as safe as possible under incredibly difficult conditions. VA has also hired over 10,000 dedicated new employees and deployed thousands of staff to hard-hit and at-risk areas to make sure veterans and non-veterans alike are taken care of. That includes 61 staff members from Tennessee who are working in community nursing homes during this crisis to help the patients and staff there. These efforts are paying off as, last week, certain VA medical facilities began to reopen. One of those facilities is our own, the Mountain Home VAMC. I look forward to continuing to work closely with the leadership there and in Washington to make sure that reopening occurs safely and smartly and that those who bravely served our country in uniform receive the high-quality care, benefits, and services that they deserve.

However, as we confront this current crisis, we should not forget that our veterans and servicemembers across the country continue to face a different kind of decades-long crisis. Since the 1990s, approximately 20 veterans or active duty servicemembers have died by suicide each and every day. We must do everything in our power to reverse this trend. Because only six of those 20 servicemembers and veterans received care from the VA in the two years preceding their death, we need a widespread effort across the public and private sectors to give veterans and servicemembers the help they need. Clearly, the status quo is not working. That is why I proudly supported and cosponsored H.R. 3495, the IMPROVE Well-Being for Veterans Act. This legislation would provide grants to entities that provide an additional level of suicide prevention services to those at risk. This would greatly expand the reach of VA’s suicide prevention programs and enable more at-risk servicemembers and veterans to be identified and supported. Stopping veteran suicide is not a Republican or Democratic issue – it’s an American one and if we work together and put politics aside, I know we can save veteran lives.

The debt we owe to our fallen servicemen and women, and the loved ones they leave behind, is one we will never be able to fully repay. However, for the past 10 years, there has been no higher honor than striving every day to repay it in some way. This Memorial Day, I hope you will join me in remembering those who have selflessly given their lives while wearing the cloth of the land we are blessed to call home.

The writer, a retired physician and a former mayor of Johnson City, represents the 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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